Ruthie & Frank Clark

How They Met

Ruthie provides the details. "How did we meet? Well, I was performing with my family 'The Engfords'. Frank was performing with the Parallel Bar Act he did with "The Noble Trio". These two acts were booked together at a County Fair in Illinois. I was sixteen years old. We didn't see each other again for TEN years! Again, we were booked at a County Fair in Laurel Mississippi, for a whole week. By this time, Frank was practicing and learning his Head Balancing Trapeze Act. We decided that at the end of the Fair Season that year, we would get together for dinner. We did! We started dating and fell in love. Then Frank got this most terrific offer to go to England for a year on Billy Smarts’ Circus with his new and wonderful Head Balancing Trapeze Act! Of course, he WENT!"

"We wrote letters daily. I continued performing with The Engfords, and doing my single Trapeze Act 'Estreleta'. The season on Billy Smarts' ended. Frank had marvelous offers to go to Paris, Cirque d'Hiver, Cirque Medrano, Hungarian State Circus, and the offer of a RETURN engagement for another season on Billy Smart's. Oh, my goodness, a dream come true! I continued performing with The Engfords, doing my Single Trapeze Act, and then, the 'Slide For Life' down a cable at Circus World Museum. These were the days before Cell Phones! In fact, for two years, we were unable to talk on the phone even once. The letters became more infrequent. I believed Frank was never coming back to America, and told him so!"

"Well, guess what? Several months later, at a big indoor circus in Rochester, New York, a knock came on the dressing room door. "Ruthie, there is someone here who wants to see you". It was Frank! I couldn't believe it! He had quit the show in England, and flown home to America, as he believed we should make a life together! He was certainly right, as the rest is history!"

"Francarro & Estreleta, America’s premier aerialists,"

Frank and Ruthie Clark

"The Helicopter Act was an absolutely wonderful experience! It was a real kick, flying thru the air like that! What we did was, make big circles, timing the trick to happen as we passed in front of the Grandstand. The pilot would go up a couple hundred feet on the back side of the circle, as we prepared for the next trick. As you can see, the door of the helicopter was off, to allow us to climb up and get back inside to land, or to go out and down onto the rigging after take-off."

"We did 5 'Passes' in front of the Grandstand. First one was the 'double foot-flags' -- 2nd was 'splits-in-rings' -- 3rd was 'hand-to-hand' routine -- 4th was 'lay-out spin' -- 5th was our 'bow pass'. After the lay-out spin, we would climb back inside, and be ready to wave at the audience from the door, as we did the final pass."

"We sometimes landed in the infield, or wherever the pilot was set up to fly rides. I remember when we played the Edmonton Exposition; we had to meet the pilot & helicopter at the airport. We'd take off, fly over to the fairgrounds, and 'hover' just close enough so we could see two red dots on stage. These dots were actually 'The Smothers Bros.', and we followed them! Well, when these two red jackets ran off stage, we'd swoop on, do our 5 passes, and then fly back to the airport to land!"

"And, of course, our wedding!! September 17, 1966. Talk about trip! 72,000 people attended! Radio Stations broadcast it all thru Ontario. Reconfirmation of our vows in Church right after, then a Reception, which included the Mayor of the City of London, giving us a key to the city! What a day! And a hard act to follow!"

"Our pilot, John Bourn, became a good friend. We worked with him for two years, both before and after we were married. He was the 'best-man' at our aerial wedding, as well as our pilot."

Wanted: a sky pilot
Marriage high over fair aim of ‘copter aerialists
By Russ Mills
Free Press, London Ontario – Staff Reporter

Wanted: One Protestant minister to go up in a helicopter on the final day of the Western Fair and marry two aerialists dangling on a slender trapeze underneath.

A minister is all the aerialists, Frank Clark, 36, and Ruthie Engford, 26, need to tie the final knot of their 10-year courtship and 2 ½ year engagement.

But why on earth do they want to get married hanging 200 feet in the air?

"We’ve both been performers ever since we were children,” said Mr. Clark, “and when we decided to get married we wanted to do it in a way no one had ever been married before."

One major obstacle stood in the way of the marriage - the fact that the pair, billed as Francarro & Estreleta, are not residents of Ontario. But a one-hour visit to the city clerk’s office cleared the way.

A phone call was put through to the office of the deputy provincial secretary of Ontario and special permission was obtained for the marriage, based on the rule that non-residents may obtain a license if they have a friend who is a resident of the province.

The couple listed Western Fair General Manager Evan McGugan as their friend.

Provided that a clergyman can be found who will perform the ceremony in the unusual circumstances, the wedding is expected take place during the couple’s 6:45 pm performance next Saturday.

They will communicate with the minister in the helicopter through an intercom system and the ceremony will be monitored and broadcast over the fair’s public address system.

Normally, department of transport regulations forbid anyone to ride as a passenger in the helicopter with the pilot when aerialists are performing underneath, but permission has been given because the minister will be technically classed as a member of the act.

Both the mothers of the couple hope to be present for the ceremony.

"When I phoned my mother to tell her, I think she went into shock," said Mr. Clark, "all she could say was ‘oh may gosh’."

"My mother didn’t believe me at first," said Miss Engford. "She said, ‘you’re going to get married underneath a what?’."

The couple had planned to be married this summer anyway, but the idea for the ceremony under the helicopter was suggested jokingly by the pilot, John Bourn, about three weeks ago.

"We just laughed at first," said Miss Engford, "but the more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea."

She doesn’t mind being married without a wedding dress. "A full skirt and veil wouldn’t be much use in a 50 m.p.h. wind anyway," she said.

Mr. Clark will slip the ring on Miss Engford’s finger while hanging by one foot and holding her with one hand. He will then pull her up to kiss her.

The couple first met in the summer of 1956 when they were both performing in separate acts at a county fair in Menden, Ill. Miss Engford was working with her parents in a hand-balancing act and Mr. Clark was doing acrobatics.

"I thought he was a nice guy and hoped I would get to work with him again," said Miss Engford.

For the next six years they saw each other when they were performing together in the same town. They became engaged 2 ½ years ago before Mr. Clark left to do an aerial act in England and France for two years. He returned in March this year and they made plans to be married in the summer.

After the wedding they plan to take a one-week honeymoon before Mr. Clark begins an engagement with the Hubert Castle circus in Waterloo, Iowa.

They will stay in London for a couple of days before driving to Iowa.

In the Fall of 1966 they did a spot on the television program To Tell The Truth. Ruthie adds; "They opened the show with a clip of the Helicopter Wedding and then the panel was supposed to guess which of three ladies was the REAL Ruthie Clark. I worked with these girls for two days in the office of the TV station in New York to flood them with as much information as I could so they could "pretend" to be me. Well, it worked! Not one on the panel picked me! They then called Frank out of the audience to pick the REAL Ruthie Clark and he kissed me on the cheek. The audience roared! And, I add here, the flight to New York from Chicago to do the show, was the first time I had ever been on an airplane! Hung by my neck underneath a flying helicopter, got married hanging underneath that helicopter, but had never been in an airplane until then!"

That Fall and into the Spring 1967 they performed their 'Aerial Perch' act indoors all over the United States and Canada before going back to their 'Helicopter Act'.

"In 1968, in Rice Lake, Wisconsin John was preparing to fly rides at the Fair. He was flying a practice circle, as he always did, to check for wires, or other obstacles, and just to pick a path. Something broke in the tail rotor. He crashed into the lake and was killed. We were devastated! His wife Molly made us promise never to do the helicopter act again, and we never did."

"We are grateful to have had the opportunity to do this exciting act with John, who at the time had more helicopter "hours" than anyone in America!"

f and e

In 1968 Frank and Ruthie had to adapt their  'Helicopter" act to a stationary rigging both for outdoors and inside use. Frank, a trained engineer, had to develop the riggings for this approach. They continued to perform this act until 2000.

Frank developed a foot juggling act that he performed from 1983 to 2000.

They developed a comedy routine, "The Brigadier, Last of the Great Welsh Cannonballs", that they performed from 1991 to 2000. Here again Frank displayed his engineering skills by creating and building all the controls for the cannon.

As their repertoire of acts grew they frequently did two acts at each booking, but never three.

Frank and Ruthie retired in 2000 remaining in Florida for most of the year. However, they are anything but idle!

As Ruthie points out; "Frank has worked at Sarasota Opera for 12 years, nine of them, he was Property Master, and Head of the Department. "Props" at the Opera consists of anything that moves on and off stage, like chairs, tables, lanterns, torches, swords, rifles, glasses, cups, etc. This 'on & off' of items must go smoothly, noiselessly, accurately and on the mark throughout the Opera. And also synchronized with the movements of scenery and simultaneously on both sides of the stage!"

"I have been at the Sarasota Opera for 18 years, 17 of them as Dept. Head of Wardrobe in charge of all the costumes for the running of the performances. Making sure all three floors of dressing-rooms are changed over to the next set of costumes, for the next performance, which is a different Opera. Many operas will have a hundred or more separate costumes. I have a crew of 6 Dressers and it is our job to assist the performers getting into and out of costumes, often huge dresses that lace up the back or heavy Medieval style doublets with capes for the men." Here is where Ruthie's experience as a third generation costume designer and seamstress comes into play!

Ruthie & Frank - Christmas 2010.

More from Ruthie: "photo at left, Frank and I back-stage, dressed in black, so as not to be seen from the wings by the audience".

Ruthie and her brother David have donated a number of items to the Circus World Museum Opens in new page/tab including the Engford truck that the CWM restored and subsequently mounted a calliope. Also, an Engford caravan and many items from their shows.

Ruthie, David and Frank have donated many items to this Society! The largest being the Engford House. This building, locally known as the Circus House, was also the oldest continuously inhabited home in Portage County as of 2000. Among the other donated items have been an Engford caravan, now fully restored, furniture items, circus tent, many "paper" items and DVD's of their acts. All of the photos and videos for this section of circus history are from their personal and family collections.

View Ruthie Clark Interview with Tim Tegge.


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